Panel: Independent Film Festival Boston

On Sunday, April 26, 2009, I will be speaking at a panel at Independent Film Festival Boston on digital strategies for building and communicating with your audience. I hope to reveal some of the tools I’ve been working on over the past year.

I’m looking forward to attending IFFB for the first time. I’ve heard great things about the festival, since Four Eyed Monsters played there in 2005, and the festival’s Program Director Adam Roffman managed the very successful Boston release of the film in 2006.

Here are the Details: Sunday, April 26, 2009 @ 12:00 pm Somerville Theatre 55 Davis Sq Somerville, MA 02144 (617) 625-5700 map

The other panelists are:

  1. Scott Kirsner (moderator) is a journalist and all-around smart guy. He’s the author of two books, Inventing the Movies, which I frequently cite as a defining analysis of how the film industry falls behind on innovation, and Fans, Friends & Followers, an excellent collection of interviews with artists who build their own audiences and distribute their own work. He also writes the blog Cinematech.

  2. Chris Holland Director of Festival Operations at B-Side and author of Film Festival Secrets.

  3. Sean Flynn producer and cinematographer at Principle Pictures.

Update: I recorded and posted the entire panel here.

Link to start YouTube videos in the middle

Yesterday, a friend lamented that he didn’t know of a way to send someone a link to a YouTube video so that it would skip to a certain point. He knew some actors who wanted to show off videos they were in without making people wait through the whole beginning.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any way to make this work on a YouTube watch page but YouTube has a pretty good API, both for the embedded player and for retrieving information on videos themselves. So I was able to hack together my own watch page.

Here’s how to use it:

  1. Go to

  2. Type or paste the URL of a YouTube video into the form

  3. (Optional) Enter the desired starting time

  4. Click Load

  5. Copy the link from your browser’s URL bar or…

  6. When the video loads, play or scrub to the exact desired starting time.

  7. Pause the video

  8. Copy the link or embed code from the form at the bottom to get the link to this video at your starting point.

The format of the URL is pretty simple, if you want to put it together manually.**VIDEO_ID**/**TIME**

VIDEO_ID is that weird string of characters that comes after the “=” in a YouTube watch page link. TIME is the starting point in seconds. This should not be less than 0 or more than the duration of your video. It must be in whole seconds.

If people find this useful, I’ll keep updating it with new features and bug fixes. Please leave notes and suggestions in the comments section on this post.

Update (March 1, 2009): I’ve changed the URL structure so that the time comes after a slash instead of a “#”, because the old format screwed things up when posting to Twitter and a few other small problems. The old format still works, so existing links should be fine. If you leave off the time, the page will load with your video starting from the beginning.

Audience Building Tools - DIY Days

DIY Days launched today in Los Angeles, and here is my video presentation that I made remotely, since I was unable to make it to LA this time.

The video is also available on YouTube.

As promised in the video, here is a list of some of the tools I use and recommend. If you have any to add, post them in a comment. I’ll update this post if I find any others that are useful.

General Information Tools

Wordpress: This is the blogging software that runs this website, as well as, Workbook Project and tons of others. It’s free and open source. You can have it hosted for free on, or you can download it and install it on your own web server and customize it further. In addition to blog posts, you can set up more permanent “pages” for information about your film that isn’t time-based (example). Learn more and get Wordpress at

Google Analytics: Most web hosting services provide basic reporting, but Google Analytics offers a clean, more reliable way to track your web traffic and drill down to find more information. I use this mostly to learn where incoming links are coming from and to see which pages and posts on my sites are getting the most attention. This is also free. If you have Wordpress, you can use this plugin to easily get Analytics running on your site. Learn more and sign up for Google Analytics at

Discovery Tools

Search Engine Optimization: This is not a specific software tool so much as a tactic for making your website easier to find through search engines. There are a few Wordpress plugins out there, but your best bet is to search around the web for articles. Andrew Peterson, who worked on the Four Eyed Monsters distribution team sometimes blogs about SEO. Some people try to game the system or cheat to get higher search rankings, but I try to use tactics that will also make a site easier and more informal for humans as well as for Google. Learn about Search Engine Optimization on Wikipedia

Social Networks: This includes the obvious sites, like Facebook and MySpace, but many other sites have social networking components. YouTube, Flickr, Twitter or any other site that let’s you link up to other friends on the same service is a social network. Most social networks will show your friends what you’re up to, and they will show their friends in turn that they’re watching you.

Spreading and Sharing Tools

Social Bookmarking: A variety of tools exist that allow you to bookmark resources on the web and share them publicly. I use (a.k.a. Delicious), but there are a ton of others (Digg, StumbleUpon, Facebook, etc.), each a bit different in exact purpose and features. Encourage your audience to share your videos, posts, etc. on these sites. I use Social Bookmarking RELOADED, which is a Wordpress plugin that automatically adds social bookmarking links to every post on my blog. Also, check out ShareThis, which is what you saw on the Iron Sky site in the above video.

Subscription Tools

RSS and Atom Feeds are formats of machine-readable XML versions of websites. They’re great for reading blogs using news reader software, such as Google Reader. The idea is that posts on blogs you read are pushed to you through the reader software so you don’t have to remember to go back to the blog website. They’re also great for syndicating information between sites. The differences between RSS and Atom are subtle and technical, so for right now, they’re almost the same exact thing. Learn more about feeds

Feedburner is a tool for optimizing RSS and Atom feeds that come out of your blog. It will also help you track how many people are reading your blog through the feed, and you can easily set up an email digest version of your feed. I use this plugin to easily integrate Feedburner into my Wordpress blog. Learn more and sign up at

Twitter is a service that allows you to very easily post short updates, up to 140 characters from your cell phone, IM (Jabber/GTalk), a website or a variety of software. People can subscribe to your Twitter feed using RSS/Atom or through Twitter itself via those same platforms (text messages, instant messaging, etc.). You can also use the same RSS feed to syndicate these updates to your website, Facebook or other services. This is a great way to keep the updates coming without much time investment. Learn more and sign up at

Interaction Tools

Disqus: Wordpress and other blogging software come with built-in comment functions. Encourage your audience to post comments to keep the discussion going. Disqus is a service that plugs in to your blog and enhances the discussion features. Use these to keep your fans invested, get feedback on what you’re posting and see which fans are most involved. Learn more and sign up for Disqus

cforms: This should be obvious, but not every film site has this. I use this Wordpress plugin to create a great contact form on my site so people can email me directly and privately without me having to post my email address online, which invites tons of spam. It also tracks incoming emails in a database so I can keep an eye on who’s in touch. Get cforms


Here are some film and media channel sites that show off some of the tools and strategies I talked about in this video.

For some tips on what not to do with your site, read this article I wrote a few months ago on bad Flash movie websites.

Thanks to Alex Johnson for shooting this video.

Distribution: Value Added

Here at SXSW, I’ve met a number of cool, smart, ambitious filmmakers, some of whom even have great films. Even as I attend premieres and parties that fit the fantasy, the sad reality of distribution prospects for the films is all too evident. That’s why I’m working with the From Here to Awesome team to build a strong case for DIY distribution. Maybe, rather than drag filmmakers kicking and screaming, we can see a DIY distribution as a positive opportunity.

Inspired by our roundtable discussion, I pulled out a couple of old distribution contracts I had and took them apart to look for the value that the distributors brought to the table in exchange for the rights granted. A typical distribution deal will offer the following:

  • Physical distribution

  • Cutting the deal

  • Promotion

  • Cash advance and/or minimum guarantee

If we can understand what this value is, we can evaluate whether these distribution deals are the best option. Here is a look at what each of those means and which rights and costs to the filmmaker are associated with each service.

Physical distribution

Getting your film (and soundtrack, posters, t-shirts, etc.) to an audience is a clearly necessary and valuable service. It includes replicating and shipping DVDs and placing them in stores (online and offline); theaters and film prints or digital cinema; and digital download or streaming services. Most of the above services are commodities, in that there are many competitive companies from which a filmmaker or distributor can choose, so prices tend to be reasonably close to the actual cost of time and materials. For physical distribution, the filmmaker often pays either a fixed fee or a small percentage of revenues. Exclusivity is almost never required, and contract terms are for short periods of time.

DVD replication is a great example. Depending on volume, you can pay about a dollar or two per DVD. Shipping costs are fixed, as is the amount per unit that a retailer will usually pay. Download services are not quite there yet as far as deal terms. ITunes is pretty good, passing along 70% of gross revenues, though you have to go through an aggregator, who will take their own small cut. (See the next section.) Other download services have yet to come on board with reasonable terms. It is fair for a download contract to lock you in for a certain amount of time to cover encoding costs, but those costs are always falling and terms should become shorter. (The term should be somewhere from zero to no more than three years, but about one year is fair.)

Cutting the deal

Unfortunately, many distribution platforms won’t work directly with filmmakers, so you need someone to close the deal for you. This could include a lawyer to double-check your contracts. Again, iTunes is one such example; they require that you go through an aggregator, though it’s very possible that they’ll eventually drop that requirement as they learn how to scale the acquisition process. Think of these people as agents, whose services might be worth about 10%.


Promotion is perhaps the most elusive and tricky of all the value points distributors will claim to offer. They will often incur costs for advertising, though incurring cost is not the same as providing value. Unless you have the kind of movie that is well represented by newspaper ads, billboards and trailers on television, a distributor is not likely going to know better how to promote your movie than you do. To look at it another way, you can spend $30,000 (guesstimate) on a quarter page ad in the New York Times. For a truly independent film, that might bring ten or twenty people to a screening. (For Four Eyed Monsters, it brought one.) Now, imagine what you could do spending the same $30k on a web video series, where your audience can subscribe and interact repeatedly directly on your website.

Promotion is particularly nasty because it’s the primary reason for someone to demand exclusivity. The idea is that if a theatrical distributor pays for a newspaper ad, someone might see that ad and then buy a DVD instead of going to the theater. So they need to not only get a cut of that DVD but also determine how and when you can sell that DVD. You can get around exclusivity by working with companies that don’t do much or any promotion, though there are many that will claim that they promote your work but don’t really. A buried listing on a website or in a catalogue is not sufficient promotion to justify exclusivity. You may want to offer very limited exclusivity (e.g. on a given platform for 30 days) in exchange for a great promotion or placement opportunity.

Cash advance

At the point that a film is picture locked and ready to screen, filmmakers often find themselves desperate to make a deal that will cover their budget. Such desperation gives any source of said cash undue negotiating power, and the whole situation should be preventable by preparing distribution funding in advance. Consider that a distributor’s advance/minimum guarantee is simply time-shifting of money and sharing of risk. It happens that these are the exact services that financial institutions and equity investors provide. So why would you go to a movie company for financial services instead of to a financial services provider?

Typically, before shooting a single frame, a filmmaker will raise money from one or more investors – perhaps private equity (like a dentist uncle), from a production company or by credit card. At that point, the investor is taking on a great deal of risk and will expect an accordingly high share of the profits. Maybe the film will stink; maybe the production will go catastrophically over budget; or maybe the director will get hit by a bus. But once the film is completed, much of that risk has dissipated. The movie has been delivered, and maybe it’s even pretty good. Any further investment from then on should take significantly less ownership, corresponding to the lower risk.

Given an investor-filmmaker relationship that has been successful enough to make it to picture lock, a filmmaker might be best served to return to the original investor(s) to fund delivery and distribution until revenues start coming in from box office, retail, etc. Better yet, one might prepare a business plan to receive a first round of production funding with a high-risk return, followed by a second round of distribution funding at a pre-determined lower return rate once the picture lock milestone has been reached. This is no different from how start-up companies prepare for venture funding.

Build vs. Buy

Whatever resources I need for a film project, I’m always asking myself whether to build or to buy. I look at the costs and benefits of hiring another company provide a service for me, compared with the costs and benefits of putting together the resources to do it myself. Once you break down the real costs and added value of any distribution or other deal, you can determine at each step whether you really need someone else to do it for you. Depending on what you find out, a distributor may be the best way to go, or maybe it’s just better to DIY.

SXSW Short Films Panel

I am currently in Austin for South By Southwest Film and Interactive conference and festival. I’m here with the From Here to Awesome team, meeting (and recruiting) filmmakers, finding screening partners and shooting video for the educational component.

I’ve also been invited to speak on a panel about short films. The panel is on Tuesday, March 11 at 11am, in room 15 of the Austin Convention Center. Friends Jigar Mehta and Brent Hoff are on the panel with me.

Is it the Golden Age of Short Film? People keep saying it is, but I doubt many filmmakers have felt the gold yet. Some short films are bringing in more money than most award winning documentary’s are being sold for. Find out what is the best way to capitalize on these new potential revenue streams as Filmmakers and industry experts discuss if this will really finally elevate/free shorts to become an art form and not just a stepping stone to features.

If you’re in Austin, come find me.

Slamdance: Alternative Funding Methods

This January at Slamdance, I covered this discussion on alternative funding methods for Filmmaker Magazine. After a month and a half of wrestling with video formats on YouTube, here is the entire panel. Notes and short excerpts clips are on the original post on Filmmaker.

The panelists are: Steve Montal (Moderator), Slamdance Skizz Cyzyk, MicroCineFest Amy Dotson, IFP Brian Felsen, Discmakers Don Holmsten, Film Riot Slava Rubin, IndieGoGo Nat Dinga, Producer, Fix

Building an Online Audience

Last week, at Sundance, I managed to squeeze in a quick meeting with Scott Kirsner, who writes one of my favorite blogs, Cinematech. Scott was in Park City to a panel called Digital Opportunities for Creatives, which I missed because it was after I left town. But we had a few minutes to talk about said opportunities, and Scott interviewed me on video for his blog.

Brian’s a smart guy… we mostly talked about the importance of collecting information about your fans (and who’s a super-fan versus someone who’s just mildly interested in your movie). We also touched on the deal that ‘Four Eyed Monsters’ did with YouTube and Spout, where YouTube offered the full movie for free, and Spout served as a sponsor, paying the filmmakers a buck for every new member who joined after watching the movie on YouTube.

Check out Scott’s original post and take a minute to look at some of the other posts on his site.

Sundance 2008 Video Blog

I’m heading out to Park City in a couple hours for the Sundance Film Festival. I’ll be video blogging, focusing mainly on the panels. But I’ll also be keeping an eye out for intelligent discussions and talks in non-Sundance venues. The plan is to post one video per day with a commentary and whatever additional resources are appropriate. The videos will be posted here and on Filmmaker Magazine’s site.

If you’re going to be at Sundance and would like to meet up, drop me a line or find me by following me on Twitter. Have fun and remember: carry your phone charger at all times, and be careful opening the toothpaste that first time.

Goodbye, Daily Link Blog Posts

Until now, I’ve been posting links automatically using is a very useful social bookmarking tool. The site has an “experimental” feature that will automatically post to your blog a daily digest of any links you’ve bookmarked.

It’s a cool feature, but it’s extremely limited. You can’t import keyword tags as wordpress tags, and you can’t change that boring post title (e.g. links for 2007-11-27). Most importantly, it doesn’t let you filter which links get posted. So I’ve had to stop bookmarking things that wouldn’t be appropriate for the blog (even though they’d still be public).

So I’ve stopped it, until they fix it or until I come up with something better. From now on, if I have something to share, I’ll just write a post about it.